Cardiff’s heritage crisis: Saving the soul of a working-class city

The working-class Vulcan pub was rebuilt brick by brick and reopened to the public at St Fagans Museum. Can the spirit of traditional pubs be preserved, and what else is at risk of being lost?

One evening in the early 1970s, the Vulcan pub, on the edge of a tight working-class area, was packed and buzzing. The floor was covered in sawdust. Cheerful people with pints in hand were watching a live gig, with the crowd even spilling outside. Then, Bob Peece and his band took the stage, ready to add their rhythm to the merriment.

Bob, now 73, a regular at the Vulcan pub, says, “At one time, I was a drummer, and the landlady asked me, ‘Can you and your band do a Saturday night gig?’ And I’m glad we did. The people came in. You’d have to be sitting there with a drink to see all the laughter and happiness that went on.”

The Vulcan pub on Adam Street stood for over 170 years before it was demolished in 2012 to make way for a car park. It had been a home for men working from the docks, railways and nearby industries.

Historic building experts from St Fagans rebuilt the Vulcan pub brick by brick at the museum, and it recently reopened. However, Bob says the atmosphere is different now, and it can’t return to what it once was.

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce, chair of Cardiff Civic Society, who campaigns to save traditional pubs and working-class heritage, says, “Traditional Cardiff pubs are an invaluable part of the character of our city. Too many have been lost already, and too often replaced with meaningless developments.”

Drinking houses, social clubs and working men’s clubs tell the stories of ordinary people, according to Nerys. “While grand buildings of wealthy people are protected, the stories of the people who actually built the city can just disappear. It’s going to be a bland, one-sided city,” she says.

The stories of the people who actually built the city can just disappear.

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce, heritage campaigner

The pubs were important social meeting places for workers in the past. Cardiff was an industrial city with docks, steelworks and foundries. Many workers frequented the pubs and clubs, which brought families and communities together, according to Bob.

“Going back to the 1930s and 1940s, I wasn’t around, but a lot of workers would have been sweating everything off as soon as they finished work. They had been working very hard, and the first thing they did when they finished was go to a pub where they could socialise with their mates,” Bob adds.

Dyfed Williams, the bar manager of the Halfway, a traditional pub in Cardiff, emphasises the inclusivity of such venues. He says that people of any class or generation could meet and socialise on the same level in these public houses.

Today, people still enjoy spending time in traditional pubs. Jeff Causton, retired, enters a pub, orders a pint, makes his way through the chatter and settles into his familiar corner. He prefers the atmosphere of old pubs. In modern pubs, he says, they just want you in and out, which is all about making a buck.

In traditional pubs, people aren’t rushed and are happy to talk with each other. “You can hang around for a couple of hours, even with just one pint. And there’s always somebody that you know,” Jeff says. “Even if you don’t know the people, there’s always someone who will have a chat. You always get on with people.”

Unfortunately, many of the pubs, clubs, terraced houses and docks have been lost and replaced by flats and high-rise offices, according to Bob.

Cardiff Civic Society believes the government isn’t doing enough to protect these irreplaceable venues important to the working class. Nerys hopes that they can be listed by Cadw, the Welsh government’s heritage body, before developers get their hands on them.

According to Nerys, the listing is not only sentimental but also provides protection. “Being listed would prevent them from being knocked down. Even a local listing would help,” she says. “Otherwise, developers can easily knock them down and put some modern buildings instead. They just want to make money.”

The blackboard near the door of the Halfway pub reads “Great Sport, Great Drink, Great Atmosphere” to attract passersby.

Located at the corner of Cathedral Road and William Street, the Halfway pub is a Victorian two-story building constructed in the nineteenth century. Its name derives from the fact the Halfway is halfway between Llandaff and the City Centre. Colorful hanging baskets decorate the exterior, while inside, the walls are adorned with old photos depicting Cardiff’s architecture.

A man sits on a dark wood chair, sipping a pint of beer and chatting with a bartender who leans forward against the wooden bar. Beside him, his large Chow Chow dog lies quietly on the varnished wooden floor.

The pub has been serving pints of Brains beer for over 130 years. Brains is a regional brewery based in Cardiff.

In January 2024, Cardiff Civic Society attempted to get the Halfway pub listed while Brains Brewery was selling off many of its pubs, but the application was unsuccessful. “It was really frustrating. It’s a really attractive building,” Nerys says. “Cadw’s rigid criteria exclude much of Cardiff’s working-class heritage.”

The Royal Oak, The Red Lion and The Crown are the three most popular pub names in Britain.

Two councilors once applied to Cadw to have the much-loved former Cardiff pub, Rompney Castle, listed to protect it from demolition plans. However, Cadw rejected the application due to the pub’s uPVC windows and modern interior, noting that these limited its architectural and heritage values.

According to Nerys, it’s common for some working-class heritage sites to be changed to make them practical for each subsequent purpose. “That should be celebrated and shouldn’t be an obstacle,” she says. “They are different from Cardiff Castle or Llandaff Cathedral. Nobody would feel the need to mess about with those places to make them functional.”

Cardiff Civic Society wants Cadw to widen its criteria to encompass cherished heritage in the city and place greater emphasis on a building’s social and historical significance.

Nerys thinks these adapted and surviving sites still tell stories and are worth protecting. “We believe there’s more to a building’s importance than just having the right windows or an intact elevation. The spirit of what the building represents is just as important,” she says.

Nery’s Cardiff Civic Society and the Campaign for Real Ale jointly launched a campaign in 2023 to protect traditional pubs in Cardiff.

On Courtenay Road in Splott, a workers’ suburb of Cardiff, there once stood an Arts and Crafts building made of red brick and pantile, known as the Splott University Settlement. Built in 1901, it was part of a movement to provide education and culture to working-class people.

This Victorian building was not granted listed status and was knocked down, despite a vigorous and fervent campaign by local residents to save it. “There is a great sense of loss in the community because it was part of people’s memories. It may be a focal point in your childhood,” Nerys says.

Nerys is frustrated over the missed opportunity to preserve an essential piece of local history. “The building had a huge historical significance of trying to bring education to a wider audience. Why couldn’t Cadw see the significance of it and save it? I don’t know,” she says. “Now, there is just a very boring, badly built block of flats instead.”

Thousands of residents opposed the demolition and new development of the former Splott University Settlement. Credit: Linda Bailey.

Cardiff Civic Society is working to have as many of the city’s traditional pubs and important venues recognised by Cadw. Their efforts paid off, with the East Moors Community Centre in Splott receiving a Grade II listing.

This two-story yellow-brick building on Sanquhar Street was originally built in 1892 as the East Moors Forward Movement Mission Hall. It supported missionary efforts aimed at the working classes in the surrounding industrial communities. The building is historically significant as the first purpose-built hall of the Forward Movement.

The campaign took photos, told stories associated with it, pointed out its many attractive features and submitted the application. “Cadw did actually agree that it should be listed. That was good,” Nerys says.

People often share pictures of lost buildings on social media platforms, asking “Do you remember this building?” There is a Facebook group called “Cardiff Days Gone By” where people commemorate the city’s past and share their personal stories.

Nerys hopes for more public involvement in protecting the city’s traditional pubs and significant venues. “The public needs to make a noise, make it clear that they love certain buildings,” she says.

She thinks these buildings are part of the interest of the city. “Cardiff is a working-class city,” she says. “If we don’t preserve the story of the vast majority of the people, then it’s really one-sided to just tell the story of the wealthy people, not to tell the story of everybody else.”

Cardiff Civic Society will continue to lobby the council and the government regarding the destruction of traditional pubs. Nerys says, “These things may move painfully slowly, but if we keep lobbying long enough, change will have to come.”